The coronavirus pandemic has caused an increase of hostility in the United States toward Asian Americans.
According to a new study, the arrival of COVID-19 has brought with it a resurgence of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Angela Gover, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Colorado in Denver, led the study.
The study explains that this is not the first time that an American public frightened by an infectious disease has sought to blame immigrant minorities.
During previous U.S. infections, some people referred to cholera as the “Irish disease.” Some people blamed Jewish people for the spread of consumption, or tuberculosis (TB), Irish and Jewish people for yellow fever, and Italian immigrants for polio.
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During the 1900 outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco, Chinese residents in Chinatown were kept away from everyone else. Many people today are unaware that the “Spanish Flu” did not originate with Spanish people or in Spain.
“The U.S. has seen a recurring history of socially entrenched racism towards Asian Americans with spikes occurring during historical times of crisis, including during the coronavirus pandemic,” write the authors.
“Moreover, racist attitudes have been reinforced by institutional-level support, thus promoting a culture of ‘othering’ towards Asians in America, once again. COVID-19 is a public health crisis, not a racial matter. It does not discriminate along racial lines and nor should we.”
According to the study, in late March 2020, the FBI, mindful of attempts to label COVID-19 as the “Chinese Flu” or the “Kung Flu,” alerted law enforcement agencies to be on “heightened alert for bias-motivated incidents.” The agency’s concern was warranted, write the study’s authors:
“COVID-19 has enabled the spread of racism and created national insecurity, fear of foreigners, and general xenophobia, which may be related to the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.”
The Hate Crime Statistics Act defines a hate crime as one that is prompted by “prejudice based on race, gender and gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”
“Victims of hate crimes experience significant psychological trauma,” says Gover, “often presenting as PTSD, debilitating anxiety, and depression.
She adds, “This isn’t surprising being that the cultural stigmatization and ‘othering’ of a particular group fosters an environment of normalizing instances of assault and harassment, creating a day-to-day atmosphere of fear for the safety and security of themselves and their loved ones.”
Tracking anti-Asian hate crimes
For historical context, the study’s authors analyzed two data sets of Asian hate-crime for the 16-years between 2003–2018, data predating the pandemic, and found that they arrived at suspiciously different conclusions:
- The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report reported that during two intervals, from 2003–2007 and from 2014–2018, hate crimes against Asian Americans dropped by 30.8%.
- The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, looking at the same two periods, concluded it had dropped by just 7%.
The researchers attribute this discrepancy to the underreporting of incidents. Another statistic from the victimization survey supports their hypothesis:
Less than half (47.6%) of the victims of hate-crime ever report them to the police.
To assess the level of anti-Asian hate crimes during the current pandemic, the study references statistics collected by the Stop AAPI Hate self-reporting tool (AAPI stands for Asian American Pacific Islander).
Gover says, “As of July 1, the Stop AAPI Hate self-reporting tool had recorded over 800 discrimination and harassment incidents against Asian Americans in California in the span of three months, including 81 assaults and 64 potential civil rights violations.”
Considering the impact of underreporting, these numbers likely represent just a small fraction of the actual number of incidents, reminds Gover.
The study also notes ample online evidence of a surge in anti-Asian sentiment — it describes four of these incidents in detail.
The study’s authors credit social media with playing “a significant role in publicizing racialized attacks against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
When the 2020 crime statistics are collated and published in 2021, we may have a more fine-grained understanding of pandemic-prompted anti-Asian hate crimes. Gover adds, “Once again, we are seeing a pattern of scapegoating. It is important to learn lessons from the past and not repeat history by blaming those of Asian descent for the current pandemic.”
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